Thursday, July 30, 2009

An Open Letter to the Executive Chairman of Kumpulan Utusan

Tan Sri Mohamed Hashim Ahmad Makaruddin,
Executive Chairman, Kumpulan Utusan.

Tan Sri,

I am writing to express my indignation and abhorrence at your story headlined "Takdir Yasmin" on the late Yasmin Ahmad, that your tabloid Kosmo! ran on July 27th, 2009. (I justify my use of the words "you" and "your" by the fact that you are the Executive Chairman of Kumpulan Utusan. The buck stops with you, sir, and nowhere else.)

Irregardless of whether it is based on the truth or not, your article breached not only the journalist's code of ethics, but standards of human decency as well.

Since a journalist's first obligation is to seek truth and report it, why do I say that your article breached journalistic ethics? Because even if it is true, it violates another principle that journalists are obliged to uphold:
Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.
According to this principle, journalists should:
  • Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
  • Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
  • Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
  • Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
  • Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
  • Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
  • Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
  • Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.
(From the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics)

In the case of your article, you have violated this principle in at least four ways:
  1. You have treated the memory of your subject, a recently deceased person no longer able to tell her side of the story, with disrespect, by making allegations that may (given prevailing societal attitudes, prejudiced though they may be) diminish how she is remembered by Malaysians, and expose her family to odium.
  2. You showed little compassion to her family and scant regard for the potential harm to her aged and frail mother.
  3. You did not demonstrate any overriding public need that could have justified such an intrusion into their grief and privacy.
  4. The mode in which you presented your report suggests that you have pandered to lurid curiosity, perhaps motivated by the desire to sell newspapers.
Whether we like it or not, Tan Sri, all of us will be held to account for everything we write, before the One who reads and edits us all. In the meantime, we are accountable to our readers and to our fellow journalists.

May I co-opt blogger Kama's words (from here) to express my own view:
"...Yasmin has gone to meet her Maker. Our time will come soon. Seharusnya kita sadaqah Al-fatihah untuk arwah Yasmin and not go into this silly polemic about her gender. May her soul be placed among the blessed. Amin."
Kosmo! is hardly the only newspaper in your group which regularly breaches journalistic ethics. Your other papers too, frequently have been rightly condemned, for very serious lapses in standards. How could this have happened to the news organisation pioneered by such by such illustrious journalists as Bapa Wartawan Abdul Rahim Kajai, Pak Sako and Pak Samad?

To be fair, Kumpulan Utusan is not the only Malaysian media organisation that behaves without concern for ethics. It's safe to say that the general level of professionalism and integrity within Malaysian news media is quite low. That, however, is a subject for another letter.

In order to mitigate and make amends for the damage you have done, may I humbly suggest that Kumpulan Utusan does the following:
  1. Apologise unreservedly (and prominently) to the family of the late Yasmin Ahmad. (You have done so today, in the main headline on Kosmo's front page. Well done sir, it's the first step)
  2. Devote substantial space in your papers to discussing her work and how her talent and creativity changed Malaysia.
  3. Devote substantial space in your papers to discussing the challenges faced by the transgendered community in Malaysia. Please work with them to dispel the prejudices and social stigma that they live with.
May I also suggest that your organisation commit yourselves demonstrably to upholdoing the basic tenets of good journalism.

If you do make amends, and seek to repair your organisation's seriously damaged reputation and credibility, may I wish you all the best in your endeavours.

Malaysian Heart

(A Malaysian blogger)

P.S. Tan Sri, you can download a printable copy of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics in full here (in PDF format).

(I am a member of Hartal MSM, a mediawatch group which seeks to promote a free and fair media as an impetus to Malaysia's stalled nation-building process. The views expressed here are solely my own.)

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